Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: Those are not the words that I would use, but the hon. Gentleman is on the right lines. I make one caveat. As the example that I gave illustrates, in some instances there will be a requirement for the Secretary of State to express an opinion. That might be when there has been a change such as that that I outlined—perhaps Ofsted said that everything was fine and that the performance data was fine, but the management team of the school has now gone. There could be such exceptional circumstances in which the Secretary of State would have to express an opinion, as clause 5(2) allows for.

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Chris Grayling: I am trying to understand the Minister's point. What would happen if there were a change in the leadership of the school, resulting in a different character of leadership? Although the school might previously have met the criteria, in the intervening period before Ofsted could come back and say that it was no longer happy with the leadership, would not that leadership have pretty swingeing powers? It could make changes to the whole way in which the school operated, without the system offering any restraints to prevent that. Would that be possible?

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Mr. Timms: I am not sure that I entirely follow the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman is outlining. I think that he is talking about a school that has met the criteria and earned autonomy, but in which the leadership group then changes.

Chris Grayling: Let me give a practical example. Without wishing to pick any particular group, let us suppose that a newly appointed head took a personal decision to change radically the character of the school to make it a strongly faith-based school, in a way that was not in the interests of the school community. Although Ofsted might come back later and say that that was not appropriate, none the less, on day one of his job the head would have the freedom to make swingeing changes to the school and its curriculum and culture without restriction.

Mr. Timms: Let me draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to clause 6, which sets out that the exemptions available for a school that has earned autonomy relate to the curriculum and pay and conditions. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that there could be wide scope to change all kinds of other things, but that would not be available under earned autonomy. The powers automatically available under earned autonomy are quite circumscribed.

I turn to amendment No. 67. We aim that the criteria for earned autonomy should be clear, concise and fair to all schools, whatever their circumstances. I can give the Committee a commitment that we will consult on those criteria and take all views into account before laying regulations before the House. I will go a little further, which might help the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West some more. We will make available a clear statement of our policy on the criteria under clause 5(1) as a draft for the consultation exercise before the Bill leaves the Commons. That is earlier than he was asking for, and I hope that it is helpful to him.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for that last point, to which I shall return.

On amendment No. 67, I am grateful for the commitment that the Minister has given to consult and take account of views before producing the criteria. It would fall into the category of a ministerial commitment that would be of little value, if it were not for the later commitment, for which I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful. If nothing else proves the value of today's Committee proceedings, that certainly does. It will be of enormous benefit to hon. Members and others who are interested in our proceedings to be able to see that there is consultation, and feed in their views, before the House completes its consideration of the Bill.

I take issue with some points that the Minister raised in opposing amendment No. 9. To illustrate that an element of judgment may be required, he gave the example of where the leadership of a school has been good but the head leaves. Such cases could be dealt with by objective criteria. If pressed, I might accept that there may be grounds for a reserve power that is stated as such, but that is not the way in which

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subsection (2) currently states the situation. It simply sets out that for the purposes of subsection (1) the criteria may include the Secretary of State's opinion or that of the National Assembly.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that once again the difficulty arises not with the Secretary of State, who one can assume is likely to have a rational reason for reaching a particular decision, but with the National Assembly? The reasons people may have had for voting for or against a particular proposal would be many, diverse and impossible to catalogue in the judicial review proceedings that would occur if a school felt that an opinion had been reached in an unreasonable manner. To quote the Minister, we are once more into the territory of a ''lawyers' charter''.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. How the courts will interpret the opinions of the National Assembly for Wales is uncharted water. We all look forward with intense anticipation to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales giving us greater knowledge of how these matters will proceed.

The Minister clearly stated that we could expect objective criteria by which schools would be in a position to judge whether they would qualify for earned autonomy, which is something that I and other hon. Members welcome. What those objective criteria may be will be another matter, but he has given us an insight for which we are grateful. We are especially grateful for his undertaking to set out the criteria in greater detail.

I had been minded to press amendment No. 9 to a Division, but I shall not do so in the light of the good will that the Minister has shown. Instead, I shall invite my hon. Friends to hold their fire and reserve their judgment until we see the detailed proposals that he has promised. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 4, line 15, after 'England', insert

    'except those contained in sections 74 and 75 below'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 69, in page 4, line 15, after 'England', insert

    'except those contained in sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996'.

No. 30, in page 4, line 18, after 'Wales', insert

    'except those contained in sections 95 and 96 below'.

No. 70, in page 4, line 17, after 'Wales', insert

    'except those contained in sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996'.

Mr. Brady: Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 apply respectively to England and Wales as do amendments Nos. 69 and 70, which seek to circumscribe the powers to suspend the curriculum for schools under these earned autonomy proposals in the important respect of accepting the requirement to maintain the provisions in clauses 74 and 75, which amount to a guarantee that schools should continue to offer a balanced and broadly based curriculum.

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I would expect the amendments to be regarded as non-contentious. I should be surprised if the Minister, in responding to them, were to say that relaxation or suspension of curriculum requirements for maintained schools that earn their autonomy will result in their offering anything other than a balanced and broadly based curriculum, regardless of what specialisms they may wish to pursue, and regardless of a possible wish to concentrate effort—as specialist schools already do—in particular areas of the curriculum. It seems highly improbable that it is the will of Ministers or the House to allow schools to suspend national curriculum requirements to such an extent that they can concentrate solely on a sports-based, technology-based or language-based curriculum. Perhaps the Minister will argue otherwise, and we should be interested to hear his arguments, but such a provision would seem to go far beyond the curriculum innovations introduced by the previous Conservative Government, or by those elements of the Labour Government's education legislation that built on specialist schools, city technology colleges, city academies and the like. All such institutions offer broad curricula that do not permit them to specialise only in their chosen area of interest.

I look forward to the Minister's comments on amendments Nos. 69 and 70, one of which I can probably anticipate. I fear that they might deal with the wrong part of the Bill, and no doubt he, with the benefit of his advisers, will say whether that is so. Even if they should have been slotted in elsewhere, they have been selected for debate, so I beg your forgiveness, Mrs. Adams, as I air the issues that they raise.

The concern at the heart of amendments Nos. 69 and 70, which relate to England and Wales respectively, is the incredible breadth of potential exemptions from education legislation. The Government's decision to concertina the timetable for the Bill's consideration has created time pressure, which may have caused an estimable outside body to ask me to raise the matter at slightly the wrong point in the Bill. In obliging sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996 to remain part of the requirements of education legislation, the amendments' import is to restrain Ministers present or future from going so far in the application of the discretion under the Bill that they end the current guarantee in the 1996 Act to provide free education. The fact that that is possible illustrates the breadth of powers that Ministers have under the Bill.

Given my remarks about the appropriate point at which to table amendments Nos. 69 and 70, the Minister would not expect me to press them. However, I would welcome his comments on them, as well as any assurance that he can give that the Government might look favourably on a later amendment that would similarly constrain Ministers' freedom to manoeuvre. That would give some comfort to those who fear that charging may spread beyond the strictly circumscribed areas of education provision in the maintained sector.

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If the Minister's comments and assurances are insufficient, we may seek to press the matter at a later stage.

Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 are very important. They will be of great interest to the many people who follow the debate and want to know what Ministers truly intend in releasing constraints on the national curriculum. Do they intend that there should be any constraint, or that it should be an entirely unfettered power? I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

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